Divorce is stressful for parents and kids alike. Although
reactions will depend on a child's age, temperament, and
the circumstances surrounding the split, many kids feel sad,
frustrated, angry, and anxious - and it's not uncommon for them
to act out because of those feelings.
Fortunately, parents can help their kids during a
divorce. By minimizing the tension the situation creates, being
patient as everyone adjusts to the new situation, and
responding openly and honestly to your kids' concerns, you can
help them through this difficult time.
Crucial to a child's ability to get through a divorce is the
ability of the divorcing parents to maintain a civil relationship.
Conflict between parents - whether they're separated, divorced,
or still together - causes major stress for kids that can last well
Telling Kids About Divorce
As soon as you're certain of your plans, talk to your child
about your decision to live apart. Although there's no easy way
to break the news, if possible have both parents be there for
this conversation. And it's important to leave feelings of
anger, guilt, or blame out of it.
Although the discussion about divorce should be tailored to a
child's age, maturity, and temperament, be sure to convey one
basic message: What happened is between mom and dad and
does not have anything to do with the kids. Most kids will
feel they are to blame even after parents have said that they are
not. So it's vital for parents to keep providing this
Give kids enough information to prepare them for any upcoming
changes in their lives. Try to answer their questions as truthfully
as possible, in a way that they can understand and process.
Remember that kids don't need to know every last detail - they
just need to know enough to understand clearly how their lives are
going to change.
With younger kids, it's best to keep it simple. You might
say something like: "Mom and dad are going to live in
different houses so they don't fight so much, but we both love
you very much and will try to help you get through this."
Older kids and teens may be more in tune with what parents have
been going through, and may have more probing - and difficult
- questions about things based on what they've overheard
and picked up on from conversations and fights.
Tell kids who are upset about the news that you recognize and
care about their feelings and reassure them that all of their upset
feelings are perfectly OK and understandable. You might say:
"I know this is very upsetting for you. Can we try to think of
something that would make you feel better?" or "We both
love you and are sorry that mommy and daddy have to live
Not all kids react right away. Let yours know that's OK too,
and there will be other times to talk, if they want to. Some
kids try to please their parents by acting as if everything is
fine, or try to avoid any difficult feelings by denying that they
feel any anger or sadness at the news.
Whatever your child's immediate reaction, it's important
to provide answers and reassurance about how life will change and
what will stay the same. Be ready with answers to these questions,
even before they're asked:
- Who will I live with? Where will I go to school?
- Will I move?
- Where will mom live and where will dad live?
- Will I still get to see my friends?
- Will I have to go to a different school?
- Can I still go to camp this summer?
- Can I still do my favorite activities?
Try to be honest when addressing your child's concerns and
provide reassurance that the family will get through this, even
though it may take some time.
Helping Kids Cope
Divorce brings numerous changes and a very real sense of loss.
Many kids - and parents - grieve the loss of the kind of family
they had hoped for, and children especially miss the presence of a
parent and the family life they had. That's why it's common
and very natural for some kids to hold out hope that their parents
will someday get back together - even after the finality of divorce
has been explained to them. Mourning the loss of a family is
normal, but over time both you and your child will come to accept
the new situation. So reassure kids that it's OK for them to
wish that mom and dad will reunite, but also explain the finality
of your decisions.
Here are some ways to help kids cope with the upset of a
Kids need to know that their feelings are important to their
parents and that they'll be taken seriously.
Help them put their feelings into words.
Children's behavior can often clue you in to their feelings
of sadness or anger. Let them voice their emotions and help them
to label them, without trying to change their emotions or explain
them away. You might say: "It seems as if you're feeling
sad right now. Do you know what's making you feel so
sad?" Be a good listener when they respond, even if it's
difficult for you to hear what they have to say.
Legitimize their feelings.
Saying "I know you feel sad now" or "I know it
feels lonely without dad here" lets kids know that their
feelings are valid. It's important to encourage kids to get
it all out before you start offering ways to make it better.
Ask, "What do you think will help you feel better?"
They might not be able to name something, but you can suggest a
few ideas - maybe just to sit together for a while, take a walk,
or hold a favorite stuffed animal. Younger kids might especially
appreciate an offer to call daddy on the phone or to make a
picture to give to mommy when she comes at the end of the
Keep yourself healthy.
For many adults, separation and divorce is one of the most
stressful life events they ever go through. That pressure may be
amplified by custody and financial issues, which can bring out
the worst in people. Finding ways to manage your own stress
is essential for you and your entire family. Keeping yourself as
physically and emotionally healthy as possible can help combat
the effects of stress, and by making sure you're taking care
of your own needs, you can ensure that you'll be in the best
possible shape to take care of your family.
Keep the details in check.
Take care to ensure privacy when discussing the details of the
divorce with friends, family, or your lawyer. Try to keep your
interactions with your ex as civil as possible, especially
when you're interacting in front of the kids. Take the
high road - don't resort to blaming or name-calling within
earshot of your children, no matter what the circumstances of the
separation. This is especially important in an "at
fault" divorce where there have been especially hurtful
events, like infidelity.
This is not the time to go it alone. Find a support group, talk
to others who have gone through this, use online resources, or
ask your doctor or religious leaders to refer you to other
resources. Getting help yourself sets a good example for your
kids on how to make a healthy adjustment to this major change.
Help from a counselor, therapist, or friend will also maintain
healthy boundaries with your kids. It's very important not to
lean on your kids for support. Older kids and those who are eager
to please may try to make you feel better by offering a shoulder
to cry on. No matter how tempting that is, it's best not
to let them be the provider of your emotional support. Let your
kids know how touched you are by their caring nature and
kindness, but do your venting to a friend or therapist.
Consistency and routine can go a long way toward providing
comfort and familiarity that can help your family during this major
life change. When possible, minimize unpredictable schedules,
transitions, or abrupt separations.
Especially during a divorce, kids will benefit from one-on-one
time with each parent. No matter how inconvenient, try to
accommodate your ex-partner as you figure out visitation
It's natural that you'll be concerned about how a child
is coping with this change. The best thing that you can do is trust
your instincts and rely on what you know about your kids. Does they
seem to be acting differently than usual? Is a child doing
things like regressing to younger behaviors, such
as thumb-sucking or bedwetting? Do emotions seem to be getting
in the way of everyday routines, like school and social life?
Depression, moodiness, acting out, poor performance in school,
use of alcohol or other drugs, sexual activity, or chronic
oppositional behavior can all signal that kids are having
trouble. Teens may have behavior problems, exhibit depression, show
poor school performance, run away from home, or get into trouble
with the law. Regardless of whether such troubles are related to
the divorce, they are serious problems that affect a teen's
well-being and indicate the need for outside help.
Fighting in Front of the Kids
Although the occasional argument between parents is expected
even in a healthy family, living in a battleground of continual
hostility and unresolved conflict can place a heavy burden on any
child. Screaming, fighting, arguing, or violence can make kids
fearful and apprehensive.
Witnessing parental conflict presents an inappropriate model for
kids, who are still learning how to deal with their own
relationships. Kids whose parents maintain anger and hostility are
much more likely to have continued emotional and behavioral
difficulties that last beyond childhood.
Talking with a mediator or divorce counselor can help couples
air their grievances and hurt to each other in a way that
doesn't cause harm to the children. Though it may be difficult,
working together in this way will spare kids the hurt caused by
continued bitterness and anger.
Adjusting to a New Living Situation
Because divorce can be such a big change, adjustments in living
arrangements should be handled gradually.
Several types of living situations should
- one parent may have custody
- joint custody in which both parents share in the legal
decisions about the child, but the child lives primarily with one
parent and visits the other
- shared joint custody in which decisions are shared and so is
There's no simple solution to this. Although some kids can
thrive spending half their time with each parent, others seem to
need the stability of having one "home" and visiting with
the other parent. Some parents choose to both remain in the same
home - but this only works in the rarest of circumstances and in
general should be avoided.
Whatever arrangement you choose, your child's needs should
always come first. Avoid getting involved in a tug of war as a way
to "win." When deciding how to handle holidays,
birthdays, and vacations, stay focused on what's best for the
kids. It's important for parents to resolve these issues
themselves and not ask the kids to choose.
During the preteen years, when kids become more involved with
activities apart from their parents, they may need different
schedules to accommodate their changing priorities. Ideally, kids
benefit most from consistent support from both parents, but they
may resist equal time-sharing if it interrupts school or their
social lives. Be prepared for their thoughts on time-sharing, and
try to be flexible.
Your child may refuse to share time with you and your spouse
equally and may try to take sides. If this occurs, as hard as it
is, try not to take it personally. Maintain the visitation schedule
and emphasize the importance of the involvement of both
Kids sometimes propose spending an entire summer, semester, or
school year with the noncustodial parent. But this may not reflect
that they want to move. Listen to and explore these options if
they're brought up.
Parenting Under Pressure
It's hard to maintain your role as a parent when going
through any kind of emotional turmoil. You might be tempted to
depend on kids for emotional support or to ask them to report
back on what the other parent is doing. Resist such urges - mothers
and fathers should work hard to keep their parental roles in
place. Kids, no matter how much they try to understand what
you're going through, are still just kids.
Consistency in routine and discipline across the households is
important. Similar expectations regarding bedtimes, rules, and
homework will reduce anxiety. Wherever possible work with the other
parent to maintain consistent rules - and even when you can't
enforce them in your ex-partner's home, you can stick to them
It's important to maintain as much normalcy as possible
after a divorce by keeping regular routines, including mealtimes,
house rules about behavior, and discipline. Relaxing limits,
especially during a time of change, tends to make kids insecure and
reduces your chances of regaining appropriate parental authority
Resist the urge to drop routines and spoil kids upset about a
divorce by letting them break rules or not enforcing limits. You
should feel free to lavish affection on them - kids don't
get spoiled by too many hugs or comforting words - but buying
things to replace love or allowing kids to act any way they want is
not in their best interests and you may have a hard time trying to
reign them back in once the dust settles.
Divorce is a major crisis for a family. But if you and your
former spouse can work together and maintain a civil relationship
for the benefit of your children, the original family unit can
continue to be a source of strength, even if stepfamilies enter the
So remember to:
Get help dealing with your own painful feelings about the
If you're able to adjust, your kids will be more likely to do
so, too. Also, getting needed emotional support and being able to
air your feelings and thoughts with an adult will lessen the
possibility of your child shouldering the unfair burden of your
emotional concerns. Confidants may include trusted friends
or family members or a therapist.
Be patient with yourself and with your child.
Emotional concerns, loss, and hurt following divorce take time to
heal and this often happens in phases. That's
Recognize the signs of stress.
Consult your child's teacher, doctor, or a child therapist
for guidance on how to handle specific problems you're
Many of the elements that help kids in intact families thrive
and be emotionally healthy are the same ones that help those from
divorced families thrive and be emotionally healthy. With good
support, kids can and do successfully make this life
Michelle New, PhD
Date reviewed: August 2007
Originally reviewed by:
W. Douglas Tynan, PhD
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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